Monday, April 10, 2006

Lunch Truck "Glory Days" Over?

The economic impact of a slumping housing market is not limited to just the mortgage and construction industries. The Stockton Record reports on big troubles in the lunch truck business.

It is not without irony that the horn on Miquel Vasquez's catering wagon plays "First Call," the trumpet theme that calls racetrack horses to the starting gate. Vasquez makes a number of daily weekday stops at construction areas in San Joaquin County. But home-building activity has declined since last summer as a result of a drop in buyer demand as well as unusually rainy weather in recent weeks, and his number of potential customers has plunged likewise. That leaves him and more than a few competitors jockeying for position to find customers.

One recent lunch hour, he and partner Manuel Gomez found themselves at a corner of the once-bustling Mossdale Landing development, west of Interstate 5 in Lathrop, battling it out for workers looking for a quick meal. As he chatted about how much business had slid, a competitor pulled her truck up just feet from his catering wagon, stopped in the middle of the quiet street and flipped open a side awning, just in case some workers might saunter up for lunch.

"See, this is the problem," he said in exasperation. "Too many people stop to sell food, and business is very slow." Other catering-truck owners sang the same song, bemoaning slow business after a good run last year...

Vasquez quit his Bay Area job driving a garbage truck to start his mobile catering business a year and a half ago. Now, he said, customer traffic has been so slow of late that he wonders how he and his partner will make it. Sales are down about half, he estimated...Some days, they lose money. "I'm hoping, because it's my own business, we can make it, because I'm trying to do something for myself," Vasquez said. "I just want to be able to survive, even if I'm not making a lot of money, not getting rich. I think it may be over, but I'm not losing hope..."

Celia Martinez, who works a catering truck that patrols Mossdale Landing, said the change has been startling. Her job is hard work, she said, but business used to be so good. "Right now, all the construction is very slow," she said after fixing hot meals for only a few customers during a recent lunch hour. "A year and a half ago, business was very good. Then a year ago, the other trucks came - fast. I counted seven out here the other day..." Martinez estimated that on a good day, business is down by at least one-fourth. She, like other food vendors, hopes construction and the weather both will take a turn for the better and at least start returning to the glory days...

Jesus Maldonado bought his catering wagon two months ago, so he didn't even see last year's boom time. But he wanted to stop commuting to an East Bay truck-driving job and was hoping for the best as he set up stops in north Stockton construction areas. "It's been OK," he said. "I'm afraid it won't be good."

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